REVIEW: Patti Smith + her band, Belfast Elmwood Hall 30th July 2004

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REVIEW: Patti Smith + her band, Belfast Elmwood Hall 30th July 2004

I didn't expect Patti Smith to be quite as good as she was in London three years ago, which still ranks as one of my favourite shows ever. In fact this Belfast show was as good, despite the strangely subdued, seated venue of the Elmwood Hall. What made it special for me was not just the intimacy (I was in the fifth row and she frequently stepped off stage into the crowd), but the fact she played stunning versions of 'Birdland' and '25th Floor'. An unexpected bonus came in my first hearing of the recent songs from 'Trampin', an album which I seem to have overlooked.
The band are the same as before - original Patti Smith Group members Jay Dee Daugherty and Lenny Kaye augmented by Tony Shanahan and Oliver Ray. I never noticed how much Tony contributes to the group, his faithful keyboard parts are superb as are his Jeff Buckley-style harmonies on 'Beneath the Southern Cross'.
Tonight the band build things up. It all starts so quietly with Patti coming on stage carrying a sunflower and easing her way into 'Trampin' from the new album, just her voice and Tony on the keyboards. It's clear from the outset that she's in great voice. This may be the last date of the tour but she sounds stronger than she did at her solo Belfast performance last year. She alludes to that performance in the Art College and the promise she made that night to return with the full band, laughing that the best place they could find for he to play in Belfast was a church. No-one has the heart to explain that this is no longer a church, we're happy to let her think what she likes, it's that kind of night!
Now she's 57 and we're cramped together in a seated venue, you might expect things to stay mellow throughout. Old classics 'Privilege - Set Me Free' and 'Break it up' prove she's going to be in crowd pleasing mode from the outset, and the first really special moment is that beautiful version of 'Beneath the Southern Cross'. Essentially a one-chord mantra, it's the first time they really step it up a gear, and the swirling, slightly dated, pyschedelic visuals start to play a part.
'In My Blakean Year' is another decent new one, it's a fairly straight forward Dylan-esque tune, then we get the first of her customary covers - this time it's 'Pale Blue Eyes', a great version and a nod to the influence of Lou Reed. One thing I notice that's different from the last time I saw her with the band is that tonight she has less of a tendency to look back to her heroes - there is more emphasis on her material, her new songs in fact, that she isn't that bothered about playing songs written by her heroes. The weight of history is still with her though, and the passionate 'Gandhi' sees her going walkabout in the crowd, bellowing at the top of her lungs and trying to fire up the crowd. It certainly works and a magnificent 'Free Money' sees the seats forgotten about. Summer Cannibals and Because the Night are more crowd-pleasers, surprising for some that she played her biggest hit as it was co-written with Springsteen, but she's actually done it every time I've seen her! The highlight for me was 'Birdland' on which the band and Patti really peak, Patti donning specs and reading the story from her own book as her musicians feel their way around it. She loses the glasses and picks up a guitar for '25th Floor' which is as alive and passionate as it was 27 years ago.
'People have the Power' gets us back to more staight forward stuff, and 'Mother Rose' is a fitting gentle end to a great set. It goes without saying that the encore is the full version of 'Gloria', it had to be really, this town is where the song was born and Patti always did the best version of it.
Set-list collectors will quibble about what she did and didn't play, but that's not really the issue. There are a few songs I would have happily swapped out of the set, but Patti is a performer, her band are the perfect foil for her, and for my money this is one of the best live music experiences you might ever have.

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